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NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposes bail fund for indigent defendants

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during a news conference at City Hall on April 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said Wednesday that legislators would pursue a $1.4 million citywide defendant bail fund even if they don't have Mayor Bill de Blasio's backing.

"We can get it done without the administration's support, and we are committed to it," she told reporters, calling it "morally unconscionable" that indigent defendants can spend costly and lengthy stints in jail before their day in court.

Mark-Viverito said she is considering using council coffers for the bail fund, among other options.

Council members debated the fund at an oversight hearing Wednesday on bail reform.

The story of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide earlier this month after suffering trauma from 400 days at Rikers Island awaiting trial, was evoked several times. Browder was arrested at age 16 on robbery charges and could not afford his $3,000 bail.

The council's fund would be used to cover bail set at $2,000 or lower for defendants charged with low-level misdemeanors and unable to afford it. De Blasio did not include the fund in his $78.3 billion executive budget.

The city's district attorneys have resisted the idea of a public-bail fund. Jim Quinn, senior executive assistant district attorney in the Queens County district attorney's office, said at the hearing that bail provides a "financial stake" in court appearances.

"If the city posts bail, and the defendant doesn't appear, he loses nothing," Quinn said.

Representatives of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice highlighted other defendant-related reform efforts at the hearing. The city will spend an additional $17 million to triple its number of slots for supervised release to 3,400 and an initiative is already underway to help clear backlogged court cases, said Dominique Day, the office's executive director of justice initiatives.

De Blasio spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said in an email that the mayor has emphasized the need for bail reform.

"It's simply unacceptable that the size of a person's bank account -- rather than the risk they pose -- determines whether someone is in jail or with their family while they await trial," she said. "Key reforms must happen on the state level."

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